An Accident in August
The worst of it, thought Lou, is that I could just as easily have stopped.
She switched off the ignition. She leaned her head back against the headrest, and shut her eyes at last. Behind her the garage door was closing, to a quiet mechanical purr. Then it was silent. Lou felt her heart pounding, her heart and her arteries, all through her torso, in her neck, in her head, a terrible throbbing growing ever more violent.
Has my heart been pounding like this ever since I left the tunnel? Could I have driven all the way from Paris in this state? At that speed?
She opened her eyes. Her headlights were still on. She looked to the right, to the left, listening for any sounds. But the silence was total, and the door was completely closed. She was alone. She hadn’t been followed. Perhaps they hadn’t even gotten her license number.
The motorcycle was in its usual place, to the right of the car, against the breeze-block wall of the garage. Yvon must be asleep. Lou looked at her watch. It was ten minutes to one. Yvon may also have decided to wait up for her, maybe he was immersed in one of his sailing magazines, reading the technical pages over and over.
I don’t feel like seeing him tonight. I don’t want him to be there. I don’t want to talk to him. Whether he’s asleep or not, I wish he were somewhere else.
This wasn’t the first time Lou would have liked to find no one there when she got home, the way it used to be. But tonight she absolutely had to go to bed without seeing anyone or saying anything. She would wait a minute for her heart to stop pounding, and to make sure Yvon was sound asleep.
She suddenly realized her left elbow was aching. Perhaps she’d hurt herself, too. It wasn’t like it was a huge collision, but what does huge mean? The two cars scraped together, and I was terrified, I jumped. I must have moved to the right. So it’s my right elbow that should be hurting.
Was it just then, no, probably just before, yes, it must have just before the collision that Lou had swerved the steering wheel, she can’t remember which direction. Probably the wrong way, to the left. Which is why they scraped—she had thought, this is it—that black mass surging up on her, first alongside then pulling away again when Lou thought it was all over. Think … Did I say to myself, This is it, at the time, or afterwards? For half an hour now she’d been reliving the scene, incessantly. It all happened so fast, the car bearing down on her at breakneck speed, at the entrance to the tunnel, then scraping alongside her with that metallic crunch, and moving away again, so fast, then zigzagging, ricocheting first to the left, then to the right, and finally going to ram into one of the central pillars with an almighty crash.
And I stepped on the gas. Whether there had been any other cars just then in the tunnel, Lou couldn’t say. There must have been some, it was only just after midnight, and before she went into the gapping tunnel Lou had been driving slowly and she’d seen a fair amount of traffic in Paris.
But all she could remember of the tunnel was that monster suddenly looming up behind her, making her jump, then scraping the side of the car, heading crab-like off to the left, to the right, and crashing there before her eyes; all she saw was the car embedded in its pillar, that awful squeal of brakes, crunch of metal, and a smell of something burning; the pillar ramming through the hood of the car all the way to the windshield.
Lou could not have said whether there were any passengers in the wrecked car, she’d put her foot on the gas and hightailed it out of there. Now it was her turn to drive like a maniac, she’d left the tunnel at full speed with only one thought on her mind, to get out of there. On her mind, or more precisely in the paralyzed muscles of her right calf, her foot on the floor, one thing only, get out of there.
She saw the light getting brighter in the garage, and regain its usual strength. She was losing it, she had to manage somehow to get to her bed, and quickly. She took a deep breath and opened the door. She wondered if her legs would carry her, but she managed to stand up without any problem. She took a step away from the Fiat and stopped. The body was scraped all along its side—a shiny, almost completely straight scrape a good inch wide. Lou held her hand out toward the scrape without daring to touch it, just following its trace from the front door all the way back to the left rear fender. And there she paused again. There was nothing left of her red taillight, neither the box nor the bulb, just a few shards of Plexiglas still clinging to the metal frame. The turn signal light was still there. The bumper was intact.
How on earth could I have imagined I might get away scot-free? If my taillight is broken, it is from the collision, so the bits are still back there, in the tunnel. And the scratch on the car, there’ll be the same scratch on the right-hand side of the car that crumpled up against the pillar fifty yards ahead of me.
Lou stood there for a moment, rigid as a statue. She forced herself to move, looked away. I’ll get out of this. I’ll take it in for repairs first thing tomorrow. It’s no big deal to put in a new taillight, give it a streak of paint. Nothing at all.
She walked slowly up all three floors. Anything rather than call the elevator and wake up the building. She opened the door to the apartment, closed it behind her and stood there in the dark for a minute without moving. Yvon would have called out to her, if he was awake. Lou couldn’t hear anything. She turned on the light. Nothing. Yvon had piled up his gear for the outing to Les Mureaux tomorrow, a sports bag, the jib he’d been working on meticulously for the last two days, a pair of pliers, a box of Breton sugar cookies. Renan was supposed to come and pick up his brother with the car at eight o’clock and, in principle, Lou as well. Lou shook her head. No, guys, I won’t be coming with you after all. I’ve got other stuff to do tomorrow. She put her bag on the floor, too, and went straight into the bathroom.
In the mirror she looked oddly normal. There was something peculiar about her, but her face was normal. The light in here seemed more garish than usual. She had no cuts, no bruises. There were no marks on the elbow that was hurting.
She started washing. People must have gotten hurt in that accident, for sure. Or even killed. The black car was going ninety miles an hour, at least. She shouldn’t be too optimistic, someone must have seen her Fiat. Maybe a radar took her picture. They were going to look for her. There were all those pieces of her taillight on the ground.
Calm down. Just calm down. It will all be fixed tomorrow. Change the brake light and touch up the paint, it won’t take all day. Tomorrow evening there won’t be a trace left. The Fiat will be in perfect condition.
Lou switched on the radio, some music, then switched it off again. She’d been driving so calmly through Paris, it was a soft night, she had a whole day ahead of her to rest, a summer Sunday—the last Sunday in August. She was heading into the tunnel, going—what? Thirty miles an hour? She didn’t like to drive fast, and then it was like switching to a horror film, that meteor suddenly behind her, the bump, the scrape, the squealing brakes, the horrible crunch, so fast, and she got out of there fast as she could.
Luckily Yvon wouldn’t be taking his motorbike in the morning. There was no reason for him to go down to the garage and notice the damage before he left the house. And an hour after he left … Lou sat on the edge of the bathtub. Her heart was beating fast again. An hour after Yvon leaves, tomorrow, it will be Sunday morning—it already is Sunday morning. I won’t find any garages open before Monday.
Guys, I think I will come with you to Les Mureaux after all. The less I hang around here, the better.
She slipped into her bed. Their bed, she couldn’t get used to the idea. She just couldn’t, no way, neither their nor our. Yvon said, the bed. She was as quiet as she could be, but he rolled over with a grunt. She froze. She would have liked to avoid him. Go on, Yvon, go away, disappear. We’ll see each other tomorrow. Beat it, Yvon honey. For tonight, at least. Lou couldn’t see the boy’s eyes in the dark, she could hardly see his face. But his breathing was regular again. He was asleep.
Slowly she stretched out on her back, inch by inch. Have to sleep, she thought. I’ll do my thinking during the day. Lost cause, her mind was going two hundred miles an hour, her right leg was stepping on the accelerator, she was gripping the wheel with both hands, with her shoulders and back; even her abdominal muscles were squeezed tight in flight. Why, oh why did I drive away? I could have stopped. Normally I would have. I’m the sort of girl who stops, who’s available, whose job is to be attentive to others. And I stepped on the gas. One thing is for sure, I did not think of stopping for one second. I was running away. It was my foot that decided, or fear, in any case something that wasn’t like me.
And now it was done. A car had crashed before her eyes and instead of stopping Lou had run away. She could always say, I’m not the one who fled, it’s not what I wanted, not what I did, don’t you see? It all happened without me, and they would reply, failure to report an accident. Failure to stop and render assistance. Leaving the scene of an accident.
Other people must have stopped. She was the number one witness, but surely not the only one. There are plenty of cars at midnight in the summer who go through the Alma tunnel. The others had stopped, of course, you stop when you witness a serious accident. Everybody had seen her little Fiat skedaddling out of there, the only car that did.
The worst of it was that she really could have pulled over. The more she thought about it, the more she saw herself stopping, the first one, and calling for help, stopping the traffic, doing what had to be done.
It must be at least two o’clock in the morning. Lou had cramps in her calves. She didn’t dare move. She would so have liked to be alone tonight, Yvon had moved in three months ago now and she just wasn’t getting used to it. She wasn’t sorry she gave him the keys, no. She was sorry it was done. She missed the months before, when it hadn’t been done. She liked calling him, Are you coming for dinner? Or having him call, Shall we have dinner together? Even if it was like that every day, in the end. Now there was nothing to say, nothing to decide, it was done. They have dinner together every day, they sleep together, they have breakfast together. And here I am, someone who likes nothing better than to be alone when I wake up.
If you turn the steering wheel just a little bit to one side, can you force someone off the road? A bump, say, even just a little bump and a car goes crazy, it can swerve to the left or the right and the driver can’t do a thing, right? An insignificant little bump, one taillight, a scratch …
Lou wasn’t even sure, anyway, that she’d swerved the wheel to the left. Maybe it was just the opposite, maybe she’d swerved to the right to let the maniac go by.
And that way she would have put her taillight right in his path.
And anyway she wasn’t sure she’d even turned the wheel at all. She had jumped, she remembers moving her hands on the wheel. But it was a sudden movement, just being startled, not necessarily turning the wheel.
She felt like shouting, I didn’t do anything! I was on my way home, at thirty miles an hour, and that’s where I’m at, two hours later, I can’t sleep, I’ve got all these horrible images in my head, and cramps all over my body. I didn’t do anything wrong, being startled isn’t a crime. They came hurtling down on me, and they nearly crashed into me. I’m the one who ought to complain.
At three o’clock she got up and took a Mogadon. She wasn’t going to spend all night waiting for the doorbell to ring and find the gendarmes standing there. If they were going to find her, they would find her, and for the time being she wanted to sleep.
She switched on the overhead light in the kitchen. She was no longer afraid of waking Yvon at this hour. If he asked her what was going on, she would tell him the truth, that she couldn’t sleep, and that there was a change of plans for the next day. She tore a sheet of paper out of the shopping list pad and wrote, “Three a.m. Cannot sleep a wink. Upset stomach, or something. I’ll have to try and recover tomorrow morning. Sorry for canceling on you for Les Mureaux.” And she went and stuck the paper on the mirror above the bathroom sink with a piece of scotch tape.
Fortunately it was some sort of serious practice, that Sunday, a virtual competition with other sailing addicts. Yvon hadn’t asked Lou to man the jib, she was only going along as a spectator.